IN THE HISTORY of Jazz basketball, there may never have been a night quite like it: the crowd in an arrested state of delirium, the banners in every part of the building, the Sonics wondering if they'd run into a basketball team or a threshing machine.
It was a night of a thousand stars, perhaps the most welcome of all being John Stockton, who appeared to be reviving from the longest slump of his career. And, as always, there was Karl Malone, living large in a time when living large is the only way to live."Three days ago," said Jazz owner Larry H. Miller, "who would have figured it?"
After losing the first two games of the series in Seattle - despite a strong effort in Game 2 - the Jazz appeared ready to pack it in for another season. Another long run, another exit. But that was before they made away with an upset win in Seattle last Tuesday night, bringing the series to 3-2 and returning things to Salt Lake. And before they built their lead to 35 points and walked away with a 118-83 win, Thursday at the Delta Center.
"It is kind of amazing that throughout this season everybody said that Karl and John are getting old, the plays they run are old. Then all of a sudden we look up and other teams are running them," said Malone. "I think those plays must be working pretty d--- good if other teams are running them. They might have younger guys running them, but we started running them."
From the early part of the eveninguntil the final horn, it was clear this wasn't your ordinary playoff night for the Jazz. The fireworks went off, same as always. The crowd roared for introductions, as usual, and the game began. But this time fans stood cheering long into the first period, unable to settle into their seats. They were busy feeling the thrill of the hunt. They stood so long you had to wonder if the president had walked into the house. Hundreds of banners and signs filled the corners of the building, giving the impression this was some sort of overheated political convention, not a basketball game.
It was a night when everyone - players and fans - were acting a little crazy. Caught up in the moment, one fan held up a sign that said, "Utah Jazz: Lots of Heart."
The theme of heart, of course, isn't entirely new to the Jazz. A dozen playoff appearances ago, a Denver writer accused the Jazz of having no heart. The column inflamed not only the city, but the Jazz, who went on to win the best-of-five series.
But that was long ago, when the Jazz were running on the emotion of just being in the playoffs. Since then, it's been a dozen straight years in the post-season - and again the issue of heart came up when the Jazz fell behind 3-1 to the Sonics. The Jazz's chances of getting to a Game 7 were slim. We're talking razor-blade slim. Kate Moss, Lyle Lovett-type slim. Isthmus of Pamama-type slim.
You could hear golf clubs being pulled out of closets all the way to Arizona.
But the Jazz responded by winning in Seattle on Tuesday in overtime, pulling to a 3-2 deficit. "When we won that game (Tuesday night), when we found a way to win, that was, I think, our finest hour," said Miller. "Tonight was important because it was our ticket to the dance on Sunday."
"I'm proud of our guys because everybody wrote us off," said Malone. "Then all of a sudden those old Jazz were right back in there again."
On the verge of his first-ever NBA Finals appearance, Malone received a phone call Wednesday from longtime friend Charles Barkley, who has been to the Finals with Phoenix. "He said it's unbelievable, what it's like," said Malone. "But all this don't mean anything if we don't get to the game Sunday."
But by the time Bryon Russell had roared in for a 180-degree dunk on a breakaway, and Jeff Hornacek had added a few 3-pointers to his impressive collection, and the crowd had begun to chant Ga-ree! Gar-ee! derisively at Sonics' guard Gary Payton, and Malone had chest-bumped his way onto the late-night sports news along with Antoine Carr, it was clear there would be a Sunday game indeed. The game was history and so were the Sonics. The Jazz had advanced deeper into the playoffs than they'd ever gone.
It was a no longer a matter of whether the Jazz have heart; now it's a matter of whether they'll have it broken.